"Ismo Ismo Ismo" Explores Latin America's Diverse Experimental Film Scene

The film festival's concurrent screenings in Chicago and Mexico spotlights the creative endeavors of an often overlooked region of the world.

by Justin Kamp
Nov 3 2019, 10:45am

Ismo Ismo Ismo, as a phrase, is both all-encompassing and meaningless. It’s literal translation is a series of suffixes, -isms without any attendant philosophies. In the context of the touring film festival of the same name, those suffixes refer to, among other things, Vicente Huidobro’s Creacionismo, Puerto Rican Euforismo and Noismo, Mexican Estridentismo, and Colombian Nadaismo, all aesthetic, literary, and artistic movements that cropped up across Latin America in the 20th century. It’s also a nod to Manuel DeLanda’s 1979 psychedelic screed Ism Ism, an eight-minute nightmare of refracted Manhattan billboards and neon graffitied koans. In naming their festival Ismo Ismo Ismo, co-curators Jesse Lerner and Luciano Piazza settled on a title that is multi-faceted and unbounded, like the cinema it attempts to survey.

The festival, now displaying in both Chicago and Mexico City, is billed as “the first comprehensive, U.S.-based film program and catalogue to treat the full breadth of Latin America’s vibrant experimental film production,” For the curatorial team, Ismo was a way to broaden a sort of systemic tunnel-vision, one that excluded an entire swath of cinema.

Still from Luis Ospita and Carlos Mayolo's "Vampires of Poverty"

“There’s an extensive range of publications on experimental cinema, [and] almost all of them focus exclusively on experimental film from the US and Western Europe,” Lerner said in an e-mail correspondence with GARAGE. “Similarly there’s an extensive range of books available about Latin American film, in Spanish, English, and Portuguese, but almost all of them are focused on commercial, fiction films.”

What’s been lost in this, according to Lerner, is nearly a century of experimental filmmaking in Latin America, a catalog of works united by little more than the fact that they were made in the Global South, and have therefore gone mostly unnoticed. To combat this, Lerner and Piazza assembled a team of eleven curators across nine countries to research and catalog the work of filmmakers from across Latin America. This was no easy task, as many of the works were shot on amateur formats and distributed outside of institutional or commercial frameworks. After a year of research, Lerner, Piazza and their fellow curators began work on assembling those collected films into what would become Ismo.

The goal of the festival is to reframe those marginalized works as primary texts—to produce a film-watching experience that centers Latin American experimental cinema on its own terms. Lerner and Piazza, in the intro to the accompanying print catalog, address the difficulty of creating a complete survey of the territory’s filmmaking: “Experimental cinema in Latin America could never be reduced to one single issue, one formal problem, one aesthetic, or one political cause,” they explain. Instead of aiming for absolute completion, the festival embraces the inherent incompleteness of its project, organizing programming around themes rather than geography or genre. The various programs serve as geologic core samples of the broad-stroke ideas that animated filmmakers across Latin America.

Still from Jose Soltero's "Diálogo con Che"

Take, for example, the program “Dialogues With Che: Appropriations of a Revolutionary Figure,” which features a trio of shorts that grapple with Che as a symbol of Latin American self-determination. The most arresting of these is Jose Soltero’s titular Diálogo con Che [Dialogue with Che], a satirical Brechtean yarn in which Factory acolyte Rolando Peña plays an actor who, in attempting to portray Che, begins to reckon with his participation in the very commodification he rails against. Or the program titled “Dark Matter,” which focuses on coups, civil wars, invasions and regimes, and features pieces like Paz Encina’s Tristezas [Sadnesses], which combines a phone call from a man under house arrest, audio of a rally by Paraguay’s far-right Colorado Party, and shots of the country’s natural splendor into a haunting survey of life under military rule.

The struggle against authoritarianism is an essential part of understanding how Latin American cinema is fundamentally different than its counterparts to the north. Like the “-ismos” that give the festival its name, the experimental film of Latin America often arose in reaction to the totalitarian regimes that swept the continent during the 20th century. The consequence of this was that movements accumulated across national boundaries as artists were exiled or fled for fear of persecution. “International networks were very important for many of these filmmakers,” Lerner said. “Especially when repressive regimes didn’t allow them to exhibit their work at home.” This was another reason why the curatorial team chose to program by theme: looking at work from any one country or era would leave out so much of the collaboration that occurred across geography and time. Something that becomes clear over the course of the festival is that the territory Ismo surveys is kaleidoscopic and often contradictory, with various spheres of identity or history overlapping, colliding or otherwise complicating one another.

The struggle against authoritarianism is an essential part of understanding how Latin American cinema is fundamentally different than its counterparts to the north.

The specter looming over much of this is the United States, whose interventionism propped up regimes across the continent, and whose imperialist foreign policy continues to inform the economies of many Latin American countries today. One of the festival's central narrative throughlines is the tension between reckoning with the influence of the Global North and refuting it entirely. Some films, like Luis Ospita and Carlos Mayolo's incendary Vampires of Poverty or Ximena Cuevas’s bizarre and buzzing Estamos Para Servile [We're Here to Serve You], directly confront the colonialist power dynamics that infect much of the continent, while others, like Poli Marichal’s lysergic annexation nightmare Dilemma I: Burundanga Boricua or Cuevas’ hilariously hellish Cinepolis, treat American influence like a phantom, zooming in on ephemera while purposefully leaving the source out of frame.

Still from Ximena Cuevas' "Cinepolis"

Vampires of Poverty especially feels like a skeleton key for the festival as a whole in how it filters its critiques of both imperialist influence and the filmic gaze itself through a uniquely Latin American perspective. The mockumentary follows a film crew scouring the streets of Bogotá for instances of trauma and poverty in keeping with the vision of their capitalist benefactors. Cameramen pester beggars, the director pays children to bathe in a fountain, and the whole thing ends with a staged fight between a squatter and the entire production staff. The film’s reflexive philosophy is expanded upon in an accompanying manifesto by the directors: “If poverty was, for independent cinema, something to denounce and analyze, mercantile drive turned it into a pressure release valve for the very system that gave birth to it… resulting in a genre we would call the cinema of misery or Poverty Porn.” It’s reminiscent of Julio García Espinosa’s manifesto “For An Imperfect Cinema,” written a decade earlier, that calls for Cuban filmmakers to embrace amateurism as a way to reject Western ideals of class stratification. For documents that are nearly a half-century old, the subject matter feels remarkably relevant to current conversations about exploitation and class consciousness.

The festival's prescience is perhaps its best quality. Within and across its various programs, Ismo’s films dialogue with one another in surprising and relevant ways, especially when viewed in the context of recent political upheavals in the region. The tribal ethnography A Arca dos Zo’e by Vincent Carelli is given new dimensions when viewed in succession with the indigenous land dispute of Chiapa Media Project's La Tierra Es de Quien la Trabaja [The land belongs to those who work it], and both go a long way towards explaining the sort of institutional violence that can lead to the government-sanctioned destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Estamos Para Servirle and Zigmunt Cedinsky’s La guerra sin fin (I’m Very Happy) feel like companion pieces in their intense critique of a disconnected overclass, and Marichal’s anxieties about U.S. rule in Dilemma I take on new weight after the U.S. all but abandoned the state after Hurricane Maria.

Despite all of this, the festival tends to avoid cut-and-dry takeaways. Experiencing Ismo doesn’t so much define the boundaries of Latin American experimental cinema as it does deepen the complexity of that phrase—as you watch more of the films, the definitions of both “Latin American” and “experimental” become increasingly porous, the films becoming an emulsion of identities, formal techniques and artistic philosophies. Don’t think of Ismo as a map, but rather as a long and winding trail, taking you through changes in elevation and ecosystem alike. It will occasionally grant you sweeping views of the landscape, but the goal is not to provide some objective birds-eye vantage. It’s to place you there, on the ground, with the wilderness of cinema around you.

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